FLAME head still wonders why Nazis saved his life

Relying on the benevolence of Nazis will not get you far. But it kept Gerardo Joffe alive.

Not once but twice, high-ranking Nazis inexplicably assisted the young Joffe, undoubtedly saving his life.

First, an SS man who frequented Joffe's father's Berlin clothing shop phoned the family and tipped them off that Nazis would be arresting Jewish men in their neighborhood that night.

Next, a Nazi officer went out of his way to provide Joffe with a crucial stamp on his passport just hours before the ship he had been clawing to get aboard for years was scheduled to leave.

Searching desperately through Hamburg's abandoned Municipal Building, Joffe — a retired San Franciscan and the founder of the right-wing, pro-Israel group FLAME — noticed a tall man down a distant corridor.

"He was my last hope. When he was about 20 feet away from me, I saw to my horror that he was wearing a swastika button on his lapel, which showed him to be a certified member of the Nazi Party," recalled Joffe in his self-published autobiography, "Weaned on Carrot Juice."

"But what was much worse, the swastika button was surrounded by golden oak leaves…It meant that he was one of the alte Kämpfer, one of the first 1,000 members of the Nazi Party and obviously one of the most vicious and virulent. It was the worst thing that could possibly have happened."

Amazingly, the Nazi not only provided Joffe with the stamp, he also made small talk and wished him well.

"He decided to play God and gave me the thumbs-up. He gave me the ridiculous stamp I needed in order to leave the country. Had it not been for him, I would have perished there," Joffe said in an interview.

Now 83, Joffe has thought quite a bit about that Nazi's unexplainable beneficence. He's come up with a number of explanations, some more plausible than others.

"My preferred theory, in my testosterone-saturated imagination, was that he had just had an exceptionally satisfying sexual experience, probably even on a desk in the office on the fifth floor from which he had emerged, and felt generous and in good humor," he wrote.

"He told me to remember him, and I did. I wonder what happened to him? He probably died in the war — perhaps he was hanged for war crimes."

Out of danger, Joffe's life still remained unconventional, to put it mildly. He landed in Bolivia, where he picked up the name Gerardo (his given name is Gerhard) and the language. He worked for years in the nation's tin mines, advancing to chief engineer of Colquiri, the world's second-largest tin mine, by the age of 23.

"Those were the days there were 23-year-old full colonels in the United States Air Force," downplayed Joffe. "During wartime, people were able to fill positions and do things they could not have done if a war wasn't going on."

Life in and out of the mines was not all fun and games. At one point, Joffe pulled a miner who had been pinioned by hundreds of tons of falling rocks to safety. One false move would have triggered a second landslide, instantly killing them both.

In another instance, an autocratic manager hired Joffe to "work a f—–g transit" in his mine. Joffe had no idea what this meant, so he studied mine car transits and other forms of mine transportation with maniacal fervor, only to show up and be informed that he was supposed to be a surveyor.

Joffe had never surveyed in his life, but, pretending to be an expert, he quizzed his Bolivian assistant on how to do the job and learned from him on the fly.

All the while, Joffe was able to augment his income with large-scale poker playing. In one anecdote, Joffe recalls a Chilean slamming a buck knife through the hand of a cheater, Western-style.

"The green [table] cover had to be changed, and the game continued. I had seen enough action for one evening, and I left," he wrote.

While still a very young man, Joffe found his way to America, graduated from mining school and spent years in the deep South in the oil business. Oil companies at that time would never have knowingly hired a Jew, but with a name like "Gerardo Joffe," they never thought to ask any questions.

Later in life Joffe made a fortune in the direct-mailing business, founding the Haverhills company, and created FLAME (Facts and Logic about the Middle East), which places pro-Israel advertisements in newspapers and magazines across the country.

Looking back at the lucky breaks that kept him alive, Joffe compared his life to a sprint through a minefield.

"One-hundred people start, eight get through, and the journalist at the other end says, 'What was the secret that got you through the minefield?' If that guy in Hamburg with the oak leaves around his swastika had told me to go to hell, I couldn't be telling this story right now."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.